Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
October 14, 201311:07 PM

Fake Traffic, Bots And Faker Websites

Fraud is everywhere. Wake up.

When I was younger (in a pre-Internet world), there was a dirty little secret about newspapers and magazines. The publishers could tell you whatever they wanted about circulation, distribution or pass-along metrics, but it was hard to hide the fact that if you ever pulled your car into the back of their printing facilities, you would often find hundreds and thousands (and maybe more) copies of their publications by the trash bin and/or recycling bin. Some advertiser paid for those eyeballs. They paid for an ad that would never been seen. Circulation and distribution has long been a subject of contention between brands, media companies and the publishers. So much so that circulation audits were (and still are) big business. In short, brands are looking for a way to shorten the chasm between what the publishers claim and what the audience really sees.

Digital and Web analytics put this issue to rest. Right?

Wrong. In fact, the same problems that existed in the traditional publishing realm have been exasperated online. You would not think that this is the case, but it is. What we have here is the multiplier effect. So many websites, publishers and networks that it's hard to sort the wheat from the chaff if you're a brand with millions of dollars to spend and the desire to spread a message far and wide. Back in the early nineties, when the Internet was first commercialized, it was easy to bulk up traffic, increase pageviews or even generate clickthroughs on banner advertising. Yes, it was as easy to buy traffic back then, as it is to buy Facebook friends and Twitter followers today. We turn to organizations like the IAB to help create standardization for advertising formats and beyond, but what about the legitimacy of where these ads are shown? Everyone is on the take. As sad and dire as that may sound.

Do we need a Better Business Bureau for the Internet?   

I hate thinking about regulating something as glorious as the Internet, but I'll urge you to read the AdWeek article, The Amount of Questionable Online Traffic Will Blow Your Mind. "During a recent interview, online ad veteran Wenda Millard, president of Medialink, made the bold claim that a quarter of the online ad market is fraudulent. 'What we have found is the devaluation of digital media is causing us to lose about 25 percent of the roughly $30 billion that is being spent,' she reported. 'It's stolen [ad revenue].' In defining fraud, Millard lumped together piracy, nonviewable ads, ads stacked on top of one another, inappropriate content and, of course, deliberate malicious behavior, in her analysis. 'In most people's wildest dreams, they wouldn't imagine how much [questionable traffic] there is,' she says. 'People should be very, very worried.'"

So, how do you feel now?

We try to be these loyal advocates for digital marketing. We try to convince brands that web analytics shall set you free. That digital provides us with one of the most amazing opportunities in advertising that our industry has ever seen... and it starts with accountability. We can know - down to the ad served and who clicked on it - what has been happening. The end of waste. And yet, when the dollars start shifting to digital, it appears that everything (or, at least, a lot of it) gets really sketchy really fast. Unfortunately.

Be vigilant.

Regardless of who the winners are in this mire of fake and fraudulent traffic, it is clear - beyond a shadow of a doubt - that the brand is the loser. And, if the brand is loser, marketing is the biggest loser. It may be Pollyanna to think like this, but it's true. If the brand loses, we should all lose. The engine of marketing is to create interest and sales in the products and services of businesses. If this becomes some kind of digital shell game that is blown out of proportion due to the sheer magnitude and demand of inventory, what is the true business model here? Connections and the sharing of information or generating as many impressions (regardless of how credible they are) as possible?

Seriously, you need to read this: The Amount of Questionable Online Traffic Will Blow Your Mind.

(you're going to be angry).  

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Kevin
    Mitch Joel

    Interesting article, Mitch.

    As a media buyer for my clients, I don't find myself feeling angry in the least.

    Does it truly matter if your client's ad is displayed online in front of only 450k unique visitors, instead of the 600k promised? Or if your video is viewed only 150k times by actual humans, instead of the 200k reported?

    Panic only comes from placing undue importance on "exposure", when ROI is (and always has been) the real King.

    If the ROI is there, it doesn't matter if the numbers are off a bit (or more than a bit). Like you said, it's not a new phenomenon. Media has been overblown and exaggerated this whole time. Since our grandparents were kids.

    The bigger problem is that agencies tend to forget they're not in the eyeballs business. They're supposed to be in the business of selling their clients products and services.

    When that part gets fuzzy, they overreact to inflated eyeball quotients.

  • Posted by James Campagna
    Mitch Joel

    As someone who has dabbled deep into the world and methods of like exchange networks, macro-scripting and analyzing the fallout data from these practices, and been on the receiving end of these questionable proponents you bring up, there are some scenarios where jockeying for eyes in a less-than-honest fashion is not always a bad thing.

    From what I've experienced the majority of users cannot identify when someone or a subject on their newsfeed or stream is being a blatant shameless self-promoter, even if subtlety escaped them. These same users also don't care or realize where likes and engagement is being generated from. For the sake of legitimacy, as long as they see some type of social activity, be it the amount of likes/shares an item or page gets, you've passed their first mental wall. Many will not like or take the brand 'seriously' if they did not have a 'decent' following. Although I can pick out who is using these methods quickly, that overall sense is a rarity.

    I'd say no more than 20% of accounts on these like exchange networks consist of real people (not bots) manually clicking away to build up 'points' for their own personal usage, which means the majority of clicks/views generated are useless. However, most like exchange networks (addmefast.com probably being the most popular of these right now) offer geo-targeting options which come in handy and weed out a lot of the garbage. Yes, it sounds strange but genuine people soon developed a genuine interest in my brands using these shady networks, even though their newsfeeds for the most part are a cluttered mess.

    So in terms of startup brands who cannot afford to pay Facebook thousands of dollars to boost posts and get 'legitimate' likes, this alternative isn't such a terrible idea. If your growing brand can afford to 'fly under the radar' for a little while, and if you decide to 'turn off' traffic/likes at a certain point, you can speed up the whole process and get past people's initial judgement.

    For established brands with an actual budget this makes no sense and is actually a damaging method ever since Facebook implemented new EdgeRank rules to increase ad sales.

    It's all simply one darker form of manipulation in the game of digital marketing that I don't see letting up in anytime soon, one that I've learned to embrace. As long as the advertisers are aware of such practices and can quantify real ROI with or without these practices, I can't say I am totally against it to a degree.

  • Posted by Peter Pallotta
    Mitch Joel

    I guess there's nothing like a direct relationship with the customer when you hear this sort of thing. Its appalling to hear but good that its out in the open hopefully things start to change for the better and the reputation for marketing in this way doesn't degrade, lots of hard working people out there.

  • Posted by Doug Wack
    Mitch Joel

    Great post, I definitely agree it's hard to know what is true and what is a lie when it comes to the internet. But I think people have adjusted enough to computers and the internet world to know when someone is lying and when someone is telling the truth.

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